Play Makes Us Human II: Achieving Equality

Hunter-gatherers used play and humor to defeat dominance and achieve equality

Posted Jun 11, 2009

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We humans have two fundamentally different ways of governing ourselves in social groups. One is the method of hierarchy, or dominance, or force. I need not describe this method in detail; we are all too familiar with it. This is the method of governance in which those in power keep order by telling the others what they must do and not do. This is the method that predominates in conventional schools, where teachers tell students what to do; in conventional businesses, where bosses tell employees what to do; and in civic, state, and national governments, where those in power--whether that power is founded in heredity, military coup, appointment, or election--decide upon and enforce the rules that people must live by. We share this method of governance with our animal relatives. Mammals that live in social groups, especially primates, develop dominance hierarchies in which those higher up control at least some of the activities of those below. The ultimate source of control in any dominance system lies in the ability of dominant individuals to hurt subordinates who disobey--by giving bad grades to students, or firing employees, or putting offenders in jail, or simply by beating up those who behave in an insubordinate manner.

The other method is so little known and little discussed that it does not have a commonly accepted name. Sometimes the term anarchy is used to refer to it, but that term carries a pejorative burden because it is so often used to imply social chaos. I am talking not about chaos, but about situations in which people abide by rules willingly and freely, not because of threats imposed by more powerful others. I refer to this method of governance as the method of play, because play is where we see it most clearly and, I think, play is always its ultimate source.

Social Play Demands that Dominance Be Set Aside

Social play is the enemy of hierarchy and dominance; it demands equality. This is as true in animal play as it is in human play. In their serious daily lives, young monkeys--especially young male monkeys--are concerned with status. They spar and fight to establishing their positions in the hierarchy of power. Physical strength, cleverness, ability to form coalitions with others--these all contribute to the capacity to achieve high status. The one social activity for which young monkeys must, and do, set their concern for status aside is play.

Play, by definition, cannot be coerced. If two monkeys are playing together they must both feel free, not threatened or dominated by the other. Young monkeys love to play at chasing one another and wrestling, and such play is crucial to their healthy development. But to engage in such play they must set status aside, otherwise any monkey who is subordinate will run away or freeze and the game will end. In order to play with subordinate monkeys, dominant monkeys must suppress all signs of dominance. If they are stronger, they must self-handicap, so as not to overwhelm a weaker playmate. If they are cleverer, they must use that cleverness to help, not hinder, the less clever playmate.

All mammals have signals to mark their play. In wolves and dogs that signal is the play bow (the animal lowers its front end while facing the playmate). In monkeys and apes the play signal is the relaxed open-mouth display, or play face, characterized by a widely open mouth with lower jaw dropped and lack of tension in the facial muscles. In chimpanzees, our closest animal relative, the play face is often accompanied by a vocalized ahh ahh ahh, which sounds like a throaty human laugh. If such signals were translated into English they might be rendered: "We are just playing; nobody is going to hurt anyone; we have put aside our aggressiveness and defensiveness; we are cooperating in this activity for our mutual enjoyment."

As I explained in an earlier post, on the definition of play, all play--even the rough and tumble play of monkeys and children--has rules. The rules specify the actions that are permissible and not permissible; they serve to keep the play organized and fun for all and to prevent any one player from hurting another. Players follow the rules because the game is fun and the players know intuitively that the fun will end if rules are violated. If one monkey fails to take its proper turn in chasing another, or if one play-nips the other a bit too hard, the other will quit and the game will be over. The participants are motivated not only to follow the rules, but also to go beyond the rules to meet the needs and desires of the others. In my observations of age-mixed play in children and adolescents I have witnessed time and again the ways by which the stronger and more capable players modify their actions so as to refrain from dominating and to keep the game fun for all (see, for example, my discussion of an age-mixed pickup baseball game).

Now, here is the point that I am building to. In human beings, the spirit of play can suffuse all sorts of activities, including productive work, and when this happens the playful mode of governance can trump and defeat the hierarchical mode. Hunter-gatherer peoples throughout the world seemed to have understood this, and they used this knowledge, more or less deliberately, to arrange their entire social existence in a manner that permitted them to avoid hierarchy, dominance, and coercion.

The Egalitarian Nature of Hunter-Gatherer Societies

The kinds of hunter-gatherer societies that I am referring to here are those that are sometimes called band societies or immediate-return societies. These are societies in which people live in small, independent bands, of roughly 20 to 50 individuals per band, who move regularly from place to place within a large but circumscribed area to follow the available game and edible plant life. Today such societies are all but destroyed by encroachments from the outside world, but as recently as the last half of the twentieth century anthropologists were able to find and study such societies, in various remote parts of the world, that had been almost unaffected by modern ways. Examples include the Ju/'hoansi, the Hazda, the Mbuti, the Aka, and the Efé in Africa; the Batek in Peninsular Malaysia; the Agta in the Philippines; the Nayaka in India; the Aché in Paraguay; the Parakana in Brazil; and the Yiwara in Australia.

These societies are of special significance to those of us who are interested in human nature, because they are believed to represent the predominant manner by which human beings lived for hundreds of thousands of years before the advent of agriculture (which occurred a mere 10,000 years ago). Although such societies are not carbon copies of one another, they are remarkably similar to one another in certain basic ways. Of most significance to this essay, they are all marked by extraordinary egalitarianism and total commitment to cooperation and sharing. The people within a band cooperate fully with one another, regardless of degree of genetic relationship, in hunting, gathering, childcare, defense against predators, and everything else that is necessary for survival. They share all food and material wealth equally within the band, and they also often share with neighboring bands that are in need. Such intense cooperation and sharing appear to be essential to the hunting-and-gathering mode of existence; without it, our species would probably not have survived all those millennia prior to agriculture.

My analysis of the anthropological literature concerning such societies has led me to conclude that they managed to live in this highly cooperative, egalitarian manner by deliberately accentuating their playfulness as a way of suppressing the drives for dominance that we humans inherited from our primate ancestors.[1] Essentially all aspects of hunter-gatherer social life seem to be bathed in the spirit of play. Their religions are playful--not grim and threatening like the hierarchical religions that originated with agriculture and came to fruition in medieval times. Their work, including both hunting and gathering, is playful. Their approach to childcare is playful. The playful nature of hunter-gatherer religion, work, and childcare are topics of my next several posts. Right now I want to focus on hunter-gatherers' ways of making group decisions and maintaining order within the band.

In the words of anthropologist Richard Lee, hunter-gatherers are "fiercely egalitarian." Part and parcel of this egalitarianism is their staunch sense of individual autonomy. They do not believe that anyone has the right to tell another person what to do. Hunter-gatherers do not have big men, or chiefs, or bosses, who give orders. Historically, those sorts of leaders came later, with the rise of tribal societies and agriculture. Hunter-gatherers' stricture against controlling others through force applies even to parent-child relationships. Parents might try to coax their children to behave in certain ways, but they do not believe they have the right to give orders backed up by power. By refraining from giving orders, by refraining from trying to boss one another around, hunter-gatherers keep all of social life potentially within the realm of play. The band makes all group decisions through extensive discussion and debate until a consensus is achieved. People may voice their opinions vigorously, but they do not use coercive means to enforce their opinions.

How Hunter-Gatherer Bands Are Like Play Groups

This non-coercive approach to governance works for hunter-gatherers because the band itself is similar in many ways to a social play group. Hunter-gatherers are highly mobile people. They own no more property than what they can easily carry on foot, and they all have friends and relatives in other bands, so they can move at a moment's notice from one band to another. Just as people playing a social game are free to leave the game if they are not pleased, hunter-gatherers are free to leave the band, and join another if they are not pleased. But, at the same time, people are motivated to keep the band together. A stable band is more effective in meeting people's survival needs than is a band whose membership constantly changes. Moreover, people within a band become close friends and want to stick together because they like one another. Therefore, to keep the band together, people behave in ways that are designed to please the others and keep them from leaving.

Just as any attempt to coerce another in a social game may cause that other to leave the game, any attempt to coerce another within a hunter-gatherer band may cause that person to leave the band. Even children may leave a band, to live with relatives in another band, if they feel they are being mistreated. Freedom to quit is the ultimate source of all freedom and equality within any social game, and it is also the ultimate source of freedom and equality within a hunter-gatherer band. People within the band are motivated to hunt, gather, and participate in other band activities because such activities, when not coerced, are fun, please others, and keep the group together.

Humor as a Device to Keep Order and Prevent Dominance

Many anthropologists who have lived among hunting and gathering people have commented on their good humor--their joking, teasing, and easy laughter. Humor of this sort is common in all social play and it adds to the playful quality of all social interactions. Laughing together helps to maintain a sense of closeness, friendship, and equality, and it does so by evoking the sense of play. Good-natured teasing is a way of acknowledging yet accepting one another's flaws. So, humor itself brings the spirit of play to people's social activities and thereby motivates people to abide by the rules and cooperate willingly.

A number of anthropologists have commented on another use of humor among hunter-gatherers--that of correcting the behavior of those who are in some way disturbing the peace or violating a social rule. For example, Colin Turnbull wrote: "[The Mbuti] are good-natured people with an irresistible sense of humor; they are always making jokes about one another, even about themselves, but their humor can be turned into an instrument of punishment when they choose."[2] Similarly, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas noted that the Ju/'hoansi that she had lived among would not criticize people directly, but would do so through humor. She wrote: "The criticized person was not supposed to take offense at the jokes and would be sure to laugh along with the others. On the very rare occasions when self-control broke down, such as happened when two women could not stop quarreling, other people made a song about them and sang it when the arguments started. Hearing the song, the two women felt shamed and fell silent. Thus the community prevailed without mentioning the problem directly."[3]

Richard Lee has commented most directly on hunter-gatherers' use of humor as a tool to quell budding expressions of individual superiority and to maintain the sense of equality. Concerning hunter-gatherers in general, he wrote: "There is a kind of rough good humor, putdowns, teasing, and sexual joking that one encounters throughout the foraging world. ... People in these societies are fiercely egalitarian. They get outraged if somebody tries to put on the dog or to put on airs; they have evolved--independently, it would seem--very effective means for putting a stop to it. These means anthropologists have called ‘humility-enforcing' or ‘leveling' devices: thus the use of a very rough joking to bring people into line . . . ."[4]

In his book about the Ju/'hoansi, Lee tells a wonderful story of how the people he was studying turned their leveling humor on him.[5] At one point early in his fieldwork, Lee decided to reward the people he was studying with a feast, for which he purchased the fattest ox that he could find in the nearby farming community, "1200 lbs on the hoof." He was excited about announcing this gift and expected that the Ju/'hoansi would be grateful. When he announced the gift, however, he was surprised and hurt to find that the people responded not with the words of gratitude that he had expected, but with insults. For example, Bena, a 60-year-old grandmother, referred to the ox as "a bag of bones" and asked, to everyone's amusement except Lee's, "What do you expect us to eat off it, the horns?" A man who had been one of Lee's closest confidants among the Ju/'hoansi said, in mock earnestness: "You have always been square with us. What has happened to change your heart? Or are you too blind to tell the difference between a proper cow and an old wreck?" Such humor, at Lee's expense, continued for days preceding the feast.

Lee was already aware of the Ju/'hoan practice of "insulting the meat" that hunters brought to the band, and at some point he began to suspect that this practice was now being used on him. Nevertheless, his pride in providing such a wonderful gift was taken away; his masculine ego was hurt. And that was precisely the purpose of the insults. The Ju/'hoansi were treating him in just the same way that they treated any of their own hunters who brought home a big kill and failed to show proper modesty about it. As Tomazho, a wise Ju/'hoan healer, subsequently explained to Lee: "When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his inferiors. We can't accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle."

The effectiveness of humor--in reducing aggression and promoting humility--comes, I think, from its direct relationship to play. To make fun of a dispute or a boast to say, "This disagreement that has you so angry, or this thing that you are so proud of, is not as important as you think it is. This is play, and the important thing in play is to be a good sport." When hunter-gatherers use humor to resolve even the most serious social problems that they face, they bring all of social life into the domain of play.

The relationship between laughter and play lies deep in our biological makeup. Our laughter has its evolutionary roots in the primate play face--the signal that all primates use to suppress dominance and enable play. Play fighting and chasing, with its accompanying laughter, is the original form of humor. When we humans, of any age and in any culture, use humor to quell a real fight or deflate a puffed-up ego, we are calling on a very primitive biological mechanism. We are saying, in effect, "This is play; and in play we don't really hurt anyone and we don't act in a domineering manner." We are saying it in a way that works because it strikes at the gut level of instinct, which we have no means to refute, rather than at the intellectual level of verbal argument, which we are all so good at refuting or ignoring.

And so, by using humor to promote humility and peace, hunter-gatherers capitalize on the human instinct to relate humor to play. Those who are criticized through humor have three choices: They can join the laughter, thereby acknowledging implicitly the foolishness of what they have done, which puts them immediately back into the social game. They can feel and express shame for acting in a way that led to the ridicule, which brings them back into the good graces of the others and allows them more gradually to re-enter the game. Or, they can stew in resentment until they either leave the band or decide to change their ways. A great advantage of humor as a means to induce behavioral reform is that it leaves the punished persons free to make their own choices and does not automatically end their senses of autonomy and play, as would happen if the punishment involved incarceration, physical violence, or forced banishment.

I hold no illusions that we, today, can do away with hierarchical government. Our social world is much too large and complex to govern entirely through the method of play. At the civic, state, national, and world level we need rule of law and some forms of power--preferably formulated through democratic means--to back it up. But at the more local level--for example in our schools and businesses--I think we have a lot to learn from hunter-gatherers. By following the hunter-gatherer model we can, I believe, remove coercion and institute a spirit of play in almost all of the day-to-day local aspects of our social lives, including our education and our productive work. I'll say much more about this over the next several installments.

As a final note I ask you to imagine how today's world might be different if those "titans" of industry and finance--who believed they were above the rest of us and deserved outrageous salaries and bonuses, and who were so lacking in concern for others--had been subjected early in their careers to the hunter-gatherer mode of leveling. What a different world we would have. Today those people are quite appropriately the butts of humor everywhere, though it is too late for that to rectify the damage they caused. But if we keep up such humor, and begin to apply it at the earliest signs of arrogance, we may see some improvement in the business world of the future.


See new book, Free to Learn

[1] Peter Gray. Play as the foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence. American Journal of Play, 1, 476-522, 2009. All of the ideas presented in this essay are elaborated upon in this academic article. Also, some of the specific wording in the final section of this essay is taken from the article.
[2] Colin Turnbull, The Forest People (1968), p 114.
[3] Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Old Way (2006), p 218.
[4] Richard B. Lee, "Reflections on Primitive Communism," in T. Ingold, D. Riches & J. Woodburn (Eds.), Hunters and Gatherers I (1988).
[5] Richard B. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi, 3rd Edition (2003).

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